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Isn't a Humanist Military Chaplain an Oxymoron?

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Must a military chaplain believe in God? We shall soon find out the answer to that question and it will inform us if the Chaplain Corps truly understands what the Constitution and the Supreme Court say about religious liberty.

The Navy recently received an application by a highly qualified chaplain candidate who is endorsed by the Humanist Society. The candidate, Jason Heap, holds Masters Degrees from Brite Divinity School and the University of Oxford and is well on his way to a Ph.D. He wants to be a Navy chaplain, but doesn't believe in God.

That should not be a problem because the precedent was set in 2004 when the Armed Forces Chaplains Board (AFCB) approved a Buddhist chaplain and like Humanists, most Buddhist do not profess a traditional belief in divinity. And, of course, Unitarian Universalists who have had chaplains for almost 20 years, also have some members who do not have a traditional belief in God.

There are religious and Christian organizations that support the free exercise of religious liberty within the military. On July 31, 2013, the Forum on the Military Chaplaincy published its position on this issue saying in part:

We strongly support the recruitment and retention of highly qualified, clinically trained chaplains who are representative of and committed to a chaplaincy reflecting a broad and inclusive range of interfaith, multicultural and diverse life experiences. This inclusive outreach extends to chaplains representing the gay, lesbian and bisexual communities of faith, and to those of minority beliefs, including Humanists and other nontheists. They, too, are valued members of our country's military and must be embraced fully. Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, and coastguardsmen deserve nothing less!

Professor Rita Nakashima Brock, Director of the Soul Repair Center at Brite Divinity School, makes a strong case that the military should not preclude Humanist Chaplains but welcome them with open arms:

In our military today, more members identify as atheists or agnostics than the combined total of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, but these latter groups now have their own chaplains. My friend and colleague Chaplain (Col.) Herman Keizer, Jr. (ret.) spent 34 years as a chaplain, and he advocates unequivocally for expanding the chaplaincy to meet the religious needs of an increasingly diverse military. He had the honor of swearing in the Army's first Muslim chaplain, who stood in a long line of firsts, first Roman Catholic, first Rabbi, first Hindu, etc., all of whom faced resistance. It is time for an atheist first -- over a quarter of a million in military service say they have "no religious preference," a self-identification that is growing in those under age 30.

While the approval of Jason Heap's application should be a virtual "shoo-in," opposition abounds from those who are adamantly against an expanded policy of inclusion. This is appalling, as Heap's endorsement would be a strong recognition and affirmation of thousands of service members for whom military chaplains are duty bound to provide care. Retired Army Reserve Chaplain Ron Crews. who leads an alliance of conservative denominational endorsers, justifies this highly exclusionary practice by citing a legendary maxim for the existence of military chaplains, "To bring God to soldiers, and to bring soldiers to God." While he is certainly welcome to embrace this beloved maxim, as chaplains have done for years, it is hardly grounds for discrimination and exclusion. It would have been far more appropriate for Chaplain Crews and his Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty (CARL) to have championed the non-negotiable core values of the United States Army Chaplaincy, "Nurture the Living, Care for the Wounded, and Honor the Fallen."

Crews is not alone in his beliefs and position and is joined by a coalition of other ultra-conservative Christian organizations who are determined to keep the Christian privilege that presently exists in the military.

The world continues to evolve, as does the religious demographics of this country. Those who cling to the past will be relegated to the dustbin of history. The denial of a humanist wedding at the United States Naval Academy Main Chapel in Annapolis, and the continuing silence of the Navy in response to the application of Jason Heap, suggests the Chaplain Corps may not see the danger these actions pose to the future and very existence of the military chaplaincy.

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